John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

College Success: Misnomer?

John N. Gardner

I have just been reminded by one of my colleagues in our non-profit organization, Dr. Betsy Griffin, of some very interesting data she has compiled, which calls into question for me whether or not the courses many institutions call “college success” or “student success” are properly named as such….?! I shall explain.

Dr. Griffin has been analyzing data our Institute collects from colleges and universities we work with in our signature work, Foundations of Excellence. Quite simply, this is an assessment and action/improvement process designed to reengineer the first year of college to improve student success. One of the components of the FoE process is examining institutional data on what we call “high DWFI” rate courses (grades awarded in these classes being D’s, W’s, F’s and/or Incompletes). In her recent analysis, she looked at data from 356 courses that were reported by our participating institutions as being what they would define as “high DWFI” rate courses. These courses included the course with the highest percentage of DWFI grades, developmental math, in which 46% of the final grades awarded were DWFI’s, to the lowest, Speech, with 25% DWFI’s. Of particular relevance to this blog posting was the finding that 29% of the grades awarded for the first-year seminar/college success/student success courses were D’s, W’s, F’s and/or Incompletes.

When we share this data with audiences, as we have over the past three years during which we have consistently found the percentage of DWFI grades in college success courses ranging in the upper 20 percent range, we are often greeted with surprise. Some educators apparently didn’t know this was a course students could perform in at an unsatisfactory level, let alone fail. I think there is a negative assumption, I would call it a prejudice, that these courses are somehow less “real” than other college courses and that grades in these courses are some kind of gifts to students. Such was the case even at my own institution, home of the flagship course of the genre, University 101. The reality was that during my quarter century of leadership for that course we found each term, quite predictably, 4-5% of the students enrolled did not receive a satisfactory grade. A significant number of students nationally enroll for these courses but do not receive a satisfactory grade. So what is going on?

Is the course, known now in the academy as the “student success” or “college success” course, properly named if this high a percentage of students are not achieving success in the very course that commits to making students more successful in college by teaching them how to do college? Is this a misnomer?

I think not. This is one more reason why I would prefer to use the formal terminology in the higher education lexicon for this course type: first-year seminar, or new student seminar.

So if a significant number of students, who enroll in these courses widely promoted as helping students to become more successful, are not being successful, what might explain these high DWFI rates?

  1. The exact same factors that explain student underperformance in other college courses!
  2. Some new college students really do flunk college. I learned at my own institution in our internal assessments of the first-year seminar, University 101, that receipt of the final grade of F was one of the very best predictors we had of a student who would not be retained from first to second year.
  3. Some students don’t think they need such a course and don’t give it a chance. They think they have done all this in high school.
  4. Some students just don’t take it seriously, blow it off, and are rudely surprised with their final grade.
  5. About 25% of the institutions that offer these courses provide no faculty development at all to prepare instructors to teach this course. Thank goodness the other 75% of the institutions that offer such courses do provide some form of instructor training. We could therefore assume the instruction in the setting where no instructor training is provided may leave something to be desired. Notice I am now shifting the focus of a possible understanding of poor performance in the college success genre to institutional responsibility as opposed strictly to student responsibility!
  6.  Only about half of the institutions that offer faculty development require such training of all instructors (as we do at USC). Given that teaching first-year seminar is not a “discipline” for most instructors, this lack of sufficient emphasis on training may well explain poor grades as being correlated with the quality, or lack of it, of the instruction.
  7. Sadly, I hear in my travels around our country’s college and university campuses that many of them have a substantial proportion of the course sections taught by adjuncts. There is mounting evidence that there is a direct correlation between amount of credits students receive provided by adjuncts and probability of degree attainment. This is a course where part of the success of the course for students depends on the nature of the relationship they develop with the instructor and on the knowledge the instructor has of the institution, its people, resources, services. Adjuncts by definition cannot possibly have the same level of institutional engagement as full-time instructional personnel and hence being a student in an adjunct taught section, a luck of the draw, may further explain student underperformance.
  8.  Another factor may be the amount of credit. It is the case that the amount of credit influences the expectations both instructors and students have of student performance.  Unfortunately, a very significant proportion of these courses are only one credit. In such academic contexts, students and faculty alike often don’t treat these as “real” courses. Expectations are lower and hence performance outcomes are lower.

Whatever the reasons, I am dismayed that this significant a segment of students enrolled in college success courses are not performing at a level we would describe as “college success.” Surely, those of us who teach and lead such courses must take steps to improve overall performance.

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